Amid all of the furor of heightened expectations leading up to the 2011 season, the BIG question that surrounded the Red Sox was how the No. 4 and No. 5 starters would perform. John Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka were both coming off rough 2010 campaigns, and while Red Sox Nation had high hopes for a championship season, those aspirations hinged on the back end of the rotation.

Should either of them fail, or be felled by injury, the ballclub knew it would be able to turn to knuckleballer Tim Wakefield…but, in truth, there were almost as many questions about him as there were about Lackey and Matsuzaka. He had a 4-12 record and 5.61 earned run average dating back to the end of the 2009 season.

Many pundits thought you could stick a fork in him. In addition, he had sulked throughout most of the 2010 season, openly challenging the wisdom and decision-making of manager Terry Francona and General Manager Theo Epstein for determining that he should NOT be a part of the regular starting rotation.

Wakefield had appeared to be petulant and selfish, placing his desire to set the club record for wins ahead of the well-being of the ballclub. So when his chances came, he appeared unprepared…and his performance suffered accordingly.

I was among those who was very critical of the knuckleballer for his posturing. I believed his struggles had largely been due to the combination of his age and the physical demands of taking a regular turn in the rotation. I believed then (and still believe) that at this age he is better off in the role he has filled this season, as it controls his workload over the course of a long season and should enable him to remain strong through the end of September.

The difference between last year and this year is that THIS year he seemed much more accepting of his role, and appears to have prepared himself for it—both mentally and physically.

This winter, the front office determined it would retain Wakefield’s services—even as others questioned whether he should remain on the roster—but it also developed a contingency plan in case the kuckleballer’s attitude waned or that he failed to cut the proverbial mustard.

In February, the organization signed former Yankees right-hander Alfredo Aceves. It was a signing I applauded LOUDLY, and I predicted it would prove to be the best “unheralded” signing of the offseason, not just by the Sox but by ANY team in baseball. I still feel that way.

So when both Lackey and Matsuzaka went down almost simultaneously a week ago, Plan B and C were concurrently put in place. Aceves went into the rotation. Wakefield went into the rotation. And the results have been BRILLIANT!

Both pitchers have given the ballclub as much as anyone could have ever expected or hoped for.

Aceves is now 2-0, 2.22, on the season. In his first start of the year, against the Cubs last Saturday night, he left the game with his club ahead 2-1 after five innings…it’s not his fault Matt Albers blew up in the eighth inning en route to a disheartening defeat. On Thursday, in his second start, he allowed one run on five hits and two walks (with six Ks) in six innings. This time the bullpen couldn’t surrender the lead as the Sox pummeled the Tigers, 14-1.

According to my math, he has allowed two runs on eight hits and five walks in 11 innings over those two starts. THAT is more than the club could have expected out of Lackey or Matsuzaka, and it points to the fact that he may have found a permanent place in the rotation, at least in the short term.

While some people are surprised by his success, I am not. He is 16-1, 3.03, in parts of four seasons in the major leagues. He has EARNED a chance to stick in this rotation, even after Dice-K returns.

Not to be outdone, Wakefield has been equally brilliant since joining the rotation on Sunday. He has been solid all season. Aside from a pair of outings in which he allowed a total of 10 earned runs, he has allowed just seven earned runs in his other 11 appearances. In his two starts this week, he registered back-to-back wins for the first time since 2009, allowing just three earned runs in 13.2 IP.

If both pitchers continue to perform anywhere close to their recent levels, it seems to me Aceves gets the first shot to replace the enigmatic Matsuzaka in the rotation. After all, he was signed for that purpose.

I continue to believe Wakefield best serves the ballclub in the swingman role, and that the role will preserve his health and prolong his effectiveness. He obviously doesn’t agree. It will be interesting to see how he responds when or if Aceves gets the nod and he gets placed back in his previous role.

THAT response will tell us a lot about the kind of person he is (sadly, admittedly, I expect him to respond in much the same manner he did last spring, which could serve as a distraction).

In the interim, both pitchers have been spectacular. Plan B and Plan C have (thus far) worked out precisely as the club, and Red Sox Nation, had hoped.

In spite of the club’s 2-10 start to the season, the Red Sox find themselves in first place this morning, and if Aceves and Wakefield keep pitching like this it is possible the team may never surrender its ‘top dog’ status as the summer winds its way to a potentially-glorious October and November.

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